Social Stratification



"Social stratification" is the most general term used to describe the hierarchical division of a society whereby its members are ranked according to their relative power, wealth, or prestige. Although it is often used as a generic term applicable to all ranked societies, including caste societies and those based on social class, "stratification" is more generally used when the theoretical focus is upon individual action, so that the overall patterns of social stratification are regarded as the outcome of individuals' efforts to achieve social mobility. Stratification theorists can thus compare societies according to the nature and extent of vertical mobility within them, and can arrange them along a scale from the supposed rigidities of caste to the hypothetically completely open societies of the modern world   a scale that inevitably turns into an evolutionary sequence leading to modernization. (Dumont 1970).

The concept of stratification is particularly appropriate to structural-functional analyses of complex societies, where the theory assumes a mode of social integration around the common values of achievement and individual responsibility for social STATUS. The resulting hierarchy is then assumed to represent the distribution of individual talents, responsibilities, and appropriate rewards. This model of perfect individual social mobility then becomes the benchmark against which other societies are measured, a procedure adopted by sociologists employing sophisticated statistical techniques.


Strata may be nominal, constructed by sociologists, or real, reflecting actual social distances. Real strata are divided by social distances and systematic exclusions. Sociologists also distinguish closed stratification systems, such as the Hindu caste system, from open ones, such as ‘modern’ occupational/class systems. In the former, social mobility is discouraged and restricted by traditional conventions. In the latter, mobility is typical, intense, and socially approved. In the functional theory of stratification, sociologists portray stratification as socially beneficial and consensual. Conflict theorists perceive stratification as contested and accompanied by domination. Marxists see it as an outcome of economic exploitation engendered in class relations, while Weberians treat it as an outcome of multifaceted domination in combination with socioeconomic class, sociocultural status and sociopolitical power/authority hierarchies.

While there is a wide consensus that occupational and employment statuses form the backbone of modern stratification, it is accepted that social strata may also develop around other assets and locations:

        political influence, authority (as in Ralph Dahrendorf );

        ethno-racial status, prestige (as in W. Lloyd Warner or Edward A. Shils);

        education, skills, human capital, expert knowledge (as in Gary Becker and Daniel Bell);

        social networks, ties, social capital (as in James S. Coleman);

        “cultural capital,” taste, lifestyle, gender (as in Pierre Bourdieu);

        rights, entitlements, privileges (as in Bryan S. Turner).

Functionalist perspectives:

Basic assumption of functionalism is that society must address certain basic needs or functional prerequisites to survive.

Talcott Parsons

Order, stability and cooperation in society are based on value consensus -  a general agreement by members of society concerning what is good and worthwhile. Parson argued that stratification systems derive from common values. If values exist, then it follows that individuals will be evaluated and placed in some form of rank order. In other words those who perform successfully in terms of society’s values are ranked highly.

Kinsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore

For Davis and Moore stratification exists in every society. For them one of the functional prerequisites is effective role allocation and performance. Which simply means that

1.       all roles must be filled

2.       they must be filled by those best able to perform them

3.       The necessary training for them must be undertaken

4.       The roles must be performed conscientiously.

Therefore, society has some sort of mechanism to ensure such effective role allocation. The mechanism is known as stratification.

Marxist perspective:

Marxist perspective is a radical alternative to functionalist perspective. They regard social stratification as divisive and not integrative as suggested by functionalists. Marxists focus on social strata rather than social inequality in general.

From a Marxist perspective, systems of stratification derived from the relationships of social groups to the means of production. A class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production.

There is a historical analysis of class relations and progress of society in Marxian analysis. Class relations, i.e. relationship of classes with means of production if gets changed, society or whole social system undergoes changes through stages (as shown in the figure).

 Weberian perspective:

Weber also saw social stratification as classes in terms of economics. He argued that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He defined a class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy.

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions made by Weber is by bringing the dimensions of status situation (often known as prestige) to show an alternative form of stratification in society. Occupations, ethnic and religious groups, and most importantly lifestyles, as Weber observes, are accord different degrees of prestige which is another dimension of stratification.

Stratification in contemporary usage

Contemporary students of social stratification typically combine class, occupational status, and authority dimensions into synthetic gradations (stratification schemes and class maps). Anthony Giddens (The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, 1973) and Ralph Dahrendorf (The Modern Social Conflict, 1988), for example, draw stratification maps that include occupational classes, elites, and socially marginalized strata (underclasses). Similarly, John Goldthorpe (Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1987) synthesizes class and occupational schemes into an elevenclass map. Erik Olin Wright (Class Counts, 1997), in turn, juxtaposes class analysis to a study of race and gender stratification. His class/stratification schemes also incorporate the dimensions of managerial control and skill/expertise. Finally, Bell (The Coming of Post Industrial Society, 1973) and Gøsta Esping-Anderson (Changing Classes, 1993) accommodate in their postindustrial class maps the dimension of power/authority (elite or political directorate), economic integration, and citizenship rights (outsiders and underclass). With advancing globalization, many sociologists see the whole world as stratified, typically along the economic/developmental and power dimensions. 

Social Stratification - a brief introduction (bilingual, meant for my students)

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